The town of Independence, Missouri, has set the stage for tens of thousands of outdoor adventures — a statement rooted in the city’s prominent place in American history.
Roll the clock back to the mid-1800s, and this frontier town stood at the western edge of civilization. Its historic Independence Square bustled with hopeful pioneers, some dreaming of new beginnings, others harboring visions of discovering hidden gold along the Oregon Trail, which stretched 2,100 miles over the horizon.
These days, visitors to Independence can still expect to find great adventures, but with no covered wagon or oxen required. Instead, you can load up your bike or lace up their hiking shoes and get ready to hit the trails right in the heart of town.
Get Some Miles In
When pioneers set out from Independence on the Oregon Trail, they could expect to log an average of 15 miles a day. A good day could see up to 20 miles traveled.
Today, you don’t have to leave Independence for a “good day”. You can log 15 miles on the Little Blue Trace Trail, which spans most of Independence, from the northern city limits to the southern. Make it an out-and-back and you’ve got a “good day” plus 10 miles.
As its name suggests, the Little Blue Trace Trail follows the Little Blue River. Given the length of the trail, many people take to their bikes, but the sights will include plenty of hikers, runners, and walkers, too.
Some portions of the Little Blue Trace Trail meander through the natural beauty of western Missouri, with lovely, quiet, wooded areas to one side and the broad and peaceful river opposite. Other portions of the trail wind through developed parts of town, providing an opportunity to re-up on supplies or grab a bite for lunch.
Whether you choose to spend a full day or a part day on the gravel and paved path, you can expect more than a few breaths of fresh air. The Little Blue Trace Trail features four shelters and 30 picnic tables, a fully covered rock surface, and seven total entrance points.
Enjoy the View
Before pioneers got their starts in Independence, Lewis and Clark made their way through. The famous explorers were tasked with charting the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase, and their journals tell of stopping to pick plums, raspberries, and apples in 1804 at a site that would later become part of the city.
Visitors can still get a feel for the area’s undisturbed, scenic beauty at George Owens Nature Park. Open year-round, the 90-acre oasis provides access to beautiful forest, lakes, hiking trails, and wildlife.
The trails extend over a variety of natural communities: lakes, marsh, bottomland forest, upland forest, and a limestone glade. You can fish, hike, run, and relax here. The park is clean and uncrowded, and all trails are unpaved, except the main portion of the Butterfly Trail.
Near the park entry, native wildflower gardens bloom from May through October and are alive with hummingbirds and butterflies. Shallow ponds are home to a variety of frogs and tadpoles, dragonflies, and water plants.
The north park trails wind up, over, and through limestone outcroppings, with views of the lakes. This section is rocky and often uneven, although not difficult to traverse. It’s not uncommon to find sea fossils and evidence of Native American existence here.
The trail also takes you to a giant, downed tree that’s perfect for climbing, called the Jungle Gym Tree. From here, the trail traverses groves of pawpaw trees and comes out at the lakes.
The paved section of the Butterfly Trail begins near the rustic nature center, runs along a distinct limestone glade, and also ends up by the lakes. This is a fine strolling trail for families with small children or anyone who would have difficulty on an unpaved trail.
The trails in the south part of the park wander close to the lake shore, through big trees and early spring wildflowers. This area is prime territory for mushroom hunting and birdwatching.
George Owens Nature Park also hosts several events throughout the year, including guided hikes and a hummingbird festival. It’s an all-around great place to both learn about and experience the natural aspects of western Missouri.
Satisfy Your Appetite
Navigating the food and drink scene in Independence is an adventure all its own.
You can get your hands on some true Kansas City barbecue, prepared to smoky perfection, at local favorites like A Little BBQ Joint and Gates Bar-B-Q. Sit down at an Independence original, like the Courthouse Exchange or longtime icon Mugs-Up Drive In, for some comfort classics and unexpected flavor combinations like the Chili Cheese Frito Pie.
Indulge in top-notch cuisine at award-winning, locally owned restaurants like Vivilore in the Englewood Station Arts District and Ophelia’s, a cornerstone on the Independence Square.
Wash dinner down with a locally brewed craft beer from 3 Trails Brewing or Apex Aleworks. Or enjoy a glass of fine Missouri wine from Albonée Vineyards, Mallinson Vineyard, or Top Hat Winery. Looking for something a bit stronger? Evansfield Distillery creates surprising spirits that pack a punch.
Independence has a long history as the starting place for great adventures, and that sprit is alive and well. Unlike those pioneers with visions of gold in a faraway place, Independence is well within reach for a day trip or a weekend getaway for St. Louis-based outdoor enthusiasts.